NIGHTJOHN is a sober addition to the acclaimed oeuvre of filmmaker Charles Burnett (1990's TO SLEEP WITH ANGER). Pulling no punches, Burnett and screenwriter Bill Cain unleash a despairing portrait of 19th-century American slavery while creating a hopeful folktale about the power of
Separated from her slave mother, young Sarny (Allison Jones) is raised by her mother's friend, Delie (Lorraine Toussaint), on the plantation of reprehensible Clel Waller (Beau Bridges). Promoted to the post of house slave for Mrs. Callie Waller (Kathleen York), Sarny constantly fights her defiant
streak when dealing with her masters.
Meanwhile freed-man Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly) abandons his liberty in the North to return to slave status in Dixie in order to teach the young slaves how to read--an undertaking that carries a harsh punishment. When not acting as go-between for Mrs. Waller and her illicit lover, Dr. Chamberlaine
(Tom Nowicki), Sarny blossoms under Nightjohn's tutelage. But Sarny's theft of the Waller family bible has dire consequences as Master Waller's son, Jeff (Joel Thomas Traywick), is punished for the deed. Already furious over financial reversals, Mr. Waller rants and raves when Jeff later stumbles
across the missing book in the slave quarters. Although Delie first takes the blame, Nightjohn's eventual confession on Sarny's behalf results in his finger being amputated and banishment. Straining master-slave relations further, Nightjohn and Sarny already have used their writing ability to
forge plantation visitor passes for two slaves Mr. Waller wanted kept apart.
When Mr. Waller threatens retribution at the Sunday meetinghouse, Sarny informs the slaves that her secret study of Mr. Waller's ledgers has revealed that his fortune rests on his slave possessions; he can't afford to harm them. After Sarny drops hints about Mrs. Waller's indiscretions, Dr.
Chamberlaine takes the blame for the forged passes. Then, although she is sold on Mrs. Waller's orders, Sarny continues Nightjohn's legacy of education.
Somehow, every Hallmark Hall of Fame production emerges with the same well-intended, socially significant, but emotionally muted results. Director Burnett certainly does not soften his anger against the Southern slaveholders. But by caricaturing the white racists, the director turns this story
into a harsh fairy tale in which reading ability is the equivalent of Aladdin's lamp. To emphasize this simple perspective, the movie uses Sarny's child-voice in the narration and frames events from her innocent point of view. As a coming-of-age tale in a time of enslavement, NIGHTJOHN rewards its
audience with insights into a child's survival instinct and a respectful portrait of the sacrifices one African-American generation makes for another. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1996
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: NIGHTJOHN is a sober addition to the acclaimed oeuvre of filmmaker Charles Burnett (1990's TO SLEEP WITH ANGER). Pulling no punches, Burnett and screenwriter Bill Cain unleash a despairing portrait of 19th-century American slavery while creating a hopeful… (more)